I've been reading a lot of the pushback against Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. In some ways, the backlash seemed inevitable. The book’s built-in fan base from readers of The Rumpus’s popular advice column “Dear Sugar” ensured Strayed’s memoir would find an audience in 2012 — but no one could have predicted the renewal of Oprah’s Book Club or the film adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon. Overnight, the combined star power of both Oprah and Hollywood launched Wild from a critical success to a commercial best-seller.
Naturally, there were bound to be naysayers.
One of the recurring themes in these anti-Wild pieces is asking why Strayed had to walk over 1,000 miles to make peace with her mother’s death, the end of her marriage, and the mistakes she’d made. The most succinct essay on this theme is summed up in Elissa Strauss’ question for Cheryl Strayed: “Why Do Women Have to Abandon Their Lives to Find Themselves?"
In her January 2014 article for Elle, Strauss writes:
"What I long for is a path to the 'essential facts of life' that involves staying put. I want to see a way for Thoreau's mother to get a little piece of the action, without having to completely abandon her role as a caregiver . . . . I didn't connect with Wild because I'm looking for a way through, not out. I want an experience that is available to women with emotional commitments; those back home maintaining civilization, minding the children, cleaning the clothes, making sure there is food to eat. I want this and the essential facts of life. I want it for myself, as something to look forward to; I want it for men, so they're inspired to stick around."
I disagree with this argument entirely. I don’t think anyone of any gender has ever discovered the essential facts of life by staying put within the comfort zone of the life they’ve always known. I can think of many examples within my own life where I had to go away to achieve something. I don't think going away is an abandonment of one's commitments. If anything, going away is honoring a commitment to yourself.
So often women are discouraged from prioritizing their dreams because the outside ambitions might interfere with the pursuit of home and hearth. When 13-year-old Hillary Rodham wrote to NASA because she wanted to be an astronaut, she received a curt reply: “I got a response back which was, ‘We’re not interested in women astronauts’ . . . . When we were growing up, there were just so many overt and implied obstacles to what young women could aspire to. There were certainly schools you couldn’t go to, scholarships you couldn’t apply for — jobs that were not available to you.”
The ambitions of fictional women often don’t fare much better. For every Monica Wright going pro in the WNBA or Diane Court flying off to England to pursue a major fellowship, there’s a Rachel Green or Joey Potter giving up Paris for a guy. In these scenarios, why is it always the ultra-sensitive guys who don’t want the women they love to have a life beyond romance?
In the realms of career and education, it’s not as if the present day is a utopia of endless positive reinforcement for women’s dreams. In 2014, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told an audience for the Celebration of Women in Computing that “It's not really about asking for a raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raise.” Right — don’t ask for money, it will flow to you through the totally unbiased meritocracy that never results in men being paid more than women for doing the same job. Conservative writer Phyllis Schlafly thinks women are less likely to be victims of sexual assault if they would only stop applying to college: “The imbalance of far more women than men at colleges has been a factor in the various sex scandals that have made news in the last couple of years,” she claimed. Stories like these seem absurd and yet their prevalence is what keeps traditional notions of women’s roles firmly in place and leads to the print version of handwringing over the so-called “abandonment” of caregiving.
The last thing women need to read — in a women’s magazine like Elle, no less — is that their most important emotional commitments involve cleaning, food gathering, and child care. Let’s start with the assumptions made in the article. Not all women or readers of Elle are mothers or want to be mothers. Not all women are the primary housekeepers or cooks or caregivers. The women who choose these roles are tending commitments to partners and elderly parents and family and their communities. They aren’t maintaining civilization. They are maintaining the lives they’ve freely chosen.
Yet I’d be willing to bet that for many of these women, there are points in which they had to go away from the lives they loved and chose and tended with care. Maybe it was a vacation with friends. Maybe it was a job they didn’t want to turn down. Maybe it was an artist’s retreat. Maybe it was a hike of 1,000 miles and maybe it was a solitary road trip. Maybe they came back refreshed and happy and eager to reunite with their loved ones. Maybe they found places to share and maybe they found places they wanted to keep for themselves.
These feelings aren’t limited to women or mothers or wives, but why is it that women are so often denied public expression of the primal desire to go away?
In my case, going away has meant nurturing my education, meeting new people, writing, and seeing parts of the world that my mother and grandmothers and aunts have never experienced. Going away has come at a cost: it involves the strategic planning of money and time and resources which I’ve been fortunate enough to access at critical times in my life. Not everyone has access to paid time off from work or the chance to study abroad or a friend who can mail boxes filled with books and cash along various stops on the Pacific Crest Trail. One of the biggest hurdles is the logistical support needed to take time away from the responsibilities of elder care or parenting. Why aren’t we arguing for a world in which those resources are made accessible for those most in need of time and a break to find their essential facts of life?
The line that infuriated me most was the projection about straight men needing a reason to be as emotionally committed to staying in a relationship as their wives or girlfriends. I don't want a man who is inspired to stick around because I'm at home maintaining civilization. What I dare to dream is that my future partner will want to share the world with me. I want someone who is comfortable spending time alone and who, as Rainer Maria Wilke once wrote, shows “the highest form of love” by being “the protector of another person's solitude.”
Strauss uses Henry David Thoreau’s mother as a stand-in for the women throughout history who were left at home to wash their son’s laundry as he mused over philosophy at a cabin in the woods. Right now, I’m thinking of Shakespeare’s wife and Thoreau’s mother and wondering how often they wanted to leave the laundry and cooking and emotional commitments to find fulfillment on their own terms. I’m thinking of Liz Phair’s “Canary,” the imprisoned bird-woman (“I clean the house. I put all your books in an order. I make up a colorful border.”) who ends her domestic life by burning it all down. Then I remember another Liz Phair song, “Go West.” The protagonist is a woman leaving behind a bad relationship in New York for a new life in a different state. “I'm not looking forward to missing you,” she sings. “But I must have something better to do. I've got to tear my life apart and go west, young man.”
She had something to prove and it was also just something to do. The reasons weren’t clear to her friends or her ex, but they were clear to her. I know that feeling.
My friend Rachel left the U.S. today for a three-year stint in England. I’ve known her since we were 14. She’s lived in Morocco and she was the first person to ever travel abroad with me. She is kind and funny and brilliant and brave. I asked her what she would tell others who are considering taking that kind of leap.
She smiled. “Do it,” she said. “Even if you think you can’t.”